Cycling the infamous death road

Ever since we arrived in Bolivia, Jason had been indecisive about whether or not to do a cycling tour of the infamous death road. The main factor of resistance being the fear of losing his beloved travel companion – I have proven to be somewhat athletically challenged – down the sheer mountain side. After some research we decided it was an opportunity that couldn’t be missed for a such an avid mountain biker and so we booked the tour.

With yet another painfully early start, we joined the rest of the group on a minibus. The journey was long as we snaked our way up the mountainside and further into the clouds. Off the bus we wrapped up warm to protect against the cool mountain air and got paired with our bikes, there was a sense of both excitement and apprehension in the air, with the group being a mix of experienced cyclists and those of us bought along for the ride. Before setting off, our guides taught us the customary offering to pacha mama for luck with pure alcohol; one splash on the floor for the mountain, one on the bike and one sip for us.

The group set off and immediately we naturally split, with the keen cyclists up ahead and us cautious novices at the back. Descending down the steep asphalt that leads to death road, we picked up speed without even pedalling, negotiating the chicanes with care.

As we descended further down into the valley, the threatening clouds finally gave way to rain, making the journey all the more treacherous. The smooth asphalt had become extremely slippery with the rain drops hitting your face like sharp pin pricks. As tempting as it was to close your eyes, that was asking for trouble, so there wasn’t much to do other than to try to slow down and bear it.

At the first check point the group gathered and everyone was accounted for – thankfully. Now familiar with our bikes we moved on to the infamous death road which is unpaved and much narrower. Although most of the traffic uses the new asphalt road, the old road is still used as it provides a quicker journey time despite the risks – just another hazard to add to our journey.

Before we could get a taste for the rocky road, the weather worsened. Visibility was now down to a few meters and the rain was coming down in heavy sheets. Was this pacha mama’s way of saying not to go on? If it was, we didn’t listen.

Heading down with my fingers primed on the brakes and bouncing along as the suspension absorbed every bump of the road, the weather finally started to show signs of improving. The clouds thinned, revealing the lush green rainforest across the valley and the waterfalls raining down from the side of the mountain. The views were pretty spectacular and the climate started to feel tropical, if only we weren’t already soaked to the bone.

As the journey continued and we started to dry in the pleasant sunshine, our protective layers were gradually stripped off. The rainy start felt almost like it could have been another day entirely. We kept on riding whilst enjoying the views with a rider falling off here and there, but with no serious injuries – would you believe I wasn’t one of them!

I eventually saw Jason stopped at the side flagging me down. It seems he had made a new friend while he waited for me, a gentle wild spider monkey. I had apparently missed all the fun with the monkey holding Jason’s hand and trying to lead him away to play as well as some general monkey business. Slightly grumpy at this I decided to keep up with the bulk of the group for the last part of the ride.

After 33 miles of downhill riding (and one short stint of gruelling uphill) we completed death road with no casualties, hooray! To end, we headed to a resort in the rainforest for a much needed shower and some relaxation. As we sat there exhausted with drinks in hand, we all agreed that the day was great fun and something that can’t be missed on a trip to Bolivia. We can all say that we survived the notorious death road, and we’ve got the t-shirt to prove it.

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